Friday 11 August 2017

You are old, Father William

To each of us who is fortunate enough to live long enough, there comes a point when we must reluctantly recognise that we are old.

It is usually quite sudden. I can remember it happening to my father when he was taking my pet Sheltie for a walk around the block in Longbenton in the 1960s. Some lads paused their kickabout, saying “Let’s wait until this old bloke has gone past.” Dad looked around for the old bloke, only to realise that he was it. I suppose he would have been in his late 50s at the time. He came home thoroughly dispirited. I can remember laughing at him.

For me, it happened on the afternoon of Wednesday, 9 August 2017. I’d had an agreeable lunch with my wife and two sons, aged eight and five, before they headed for a matinee at the open air theatre nearby. (Amazingly, it did not rain.) On my way back to the office I thought I’d call in at B&Q to pick up some paint I’d promised to buy to enhance the appearance of our summerhouse. I also added four bags of potting compost to the legendarily unmanoeuvrable flatbed trolley and headed towards the checkout, where I was intercepted by a solicitous, orange-clad matron with the words:

“Are you all right, dear? Would you like someone to help you with that?”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Come to this till, I can open it up for you.”

Never before in many years of shopping at B&Q have I ever known more than one or two tills to be open, and have often wondered why they installed the other four in the first place. So this was a genuine first.

“Have you got one of our cards, dear?”


“Would you like one? You are over 60, aren’t you?”

“Yes I am, as it happens. But I haven’t got anything on me to prove it.”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that, dear. I can see you are. Only it’s 10% off on Wednesdays for our Diamond Club members.”

So there I stood, with £80 worth of goods on my trolley, and a straight choice to make between my self-respect and a saving of eight quid (which actually proved to be only six quid, because the compost had already been discounted).

Naturally I went for the six quid, but still returned to the office feeling far, far older than I had been when I set out, and contemplating a future in which “a nice cup of tea and a sit down” will feature extensively, along with pensioners’ specials at lunchtime, whist drives in the day room, and lively discussions about the deaths column in the local paper.

To be fair, the ticket office staff at Newcastle Central station regularly asked me “Have you got a card, pet?” when I was still in my 40s, after the stress caused by my demanding clients turned my hair grey somewhat prematurely. But back then I could always kid myself that they had mistaken me for a student.

Now there can be no doubt. I am a Diamond Club member, my foot is poised on the edge of the grave and the ground feels distinctly slippery. But at least I’ve got Wednesdays sorted for my few remaining months, and I’ll be able to put the savings on home improvement products towards my funeral expenses.

Everyone to whom I have retailed this story in my search for sympathy has laughed at me, just as I laughed at my father half a century ago. So I have also finally learned the true meaning of karma. And all thanks to B&Q.

Friday 3 February 2017

If you go down in the woods today

Last week Mrs H volunteered to drive our elder son and two his school friends to an eighth birthday party. It didn’t seem too much of a challenge, on the face of it: the party was being held within a few minutes’ drive of our house, albeit at an address Mrs H had not visited before. But she had said address, the benefit of verbal directions (“we live in the woods”), and the support of a fully functioning sat nav. What’s more, she had taken the precaution of calling en route at the office of the local estate, from which the house is rented, to make absolutely sure she went to the right one of the two identically named cottages in their possession. What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s what:

Yes, we’ve all read about the people who have driven into canals, onto railway lines, or got their HGVs irretrievably jammed between two ancient and fragile buildings because “the sat nav told me to do it”, but this is the first time I have encountered this phenomenon quite so close to home.

I don’t think I can do better than to let Mrs H’s White Knight tell the story in his own words:

I’m not quite sure I can express my sheer delight/awe/dismay in a word that summarises all of the emotions I felt when I realised the true extent of Mrs H’s predicament. I can say, though, that one of my initial reactions was relief: if only that I am not the only man alive with a wife capable of making such a manoeuvre.

When I first got the call to duty (4.15pm) we still had failing daylight. The message was as clear as it was urgent: three 7/8 year olds and a distraught mother stuck in the deepest, darkest depths of the woods, and the mist was closing in fast.

[It surely goes without saying that Mrs H had got stuck in a spot with zero mobile reception, and had had to walk some way from the car before she could despatch a text message pleading for help.]

After about 20 minutes “off–roading” I happened on a gaggle of desperately waving children in the near dark of the woods shouting excitedly “Are you in a four-wheel drive?” and “Thank God - we thought we were going to die!” “Thank Christ!” etc. All very biblical anyway … 

[This is good, as it shows that their education in a Church of England school is delivering at least some of the hoped-for benefits.]

Behind the young Christians was a fraught-looking Mrs H, obviously downplaying the youngsters’ prophesy of doom had I not found them…. “I’ve got my car stuck up there” (gestures into the jungle). “It’s not badly stuck though!”

All very Hansel and Gretel, actually, come to think of it.

On that cheerful note they all, relieved, jumped into the car and we got back to the house so they could be duly terrified by tarantulas and snakes, this being the order of the day apparently. 

I took the opportunity to steal away from the frivolities of the killer animals in our kitchen to see if I could free the vehicle from the mud…… not being “badly stuck” etc.

Having picked them up in the woods off a moderately muddy but not impassable path (if you happened to be in a tracked vehicle, that is) I had assumed that where I had been pointed towards to find the stuck vehicle must have been on a similar woodland path. I took myself back towards where I had picked them up, to realise that where the car was actually stuck appeared to be on a track further up into the woods, and not accessible by line of sight…….. 

Mrs H had in fact decided (because the Sat Nav had dictated) that she turn off what must have been a questionable track in the first place into the woods literally off road. The SAS would have struggled to navigate the course she/the Nav had chosen to take.

A friend helped us pull the car out with his tractor in the dark after we gave up digging it out and trying to move it with his pick-up truck: having exclaimed on first sight “It looks like it’s fallen out of that fucking tree - how did that get there?!”

I have told my wife never again to describe where we live as “in the woods” in case anyone else takes it quite so literally!

Brilliant. Simply brilliant. Lifelong comical material.

I find it hard to disagree with that verdict. Mrs H described it all as “a bit of a ‘mare with the car” while my son’s verdict was slightly more dramatic: “Daddy, we nearly died in the woods!”

By way of a postscript, over the subsequent weekend one of Mrs H’s front tyres developed what appeared to be a slow puncture. I pumped it up, but it kept losing pressure, so on Monday Mrs H took it to those nice people at the local Kwik Fit.

Their first question, after examining the car, was “Do you do a lot of off-roading?”

Because obviously, if you did, your first choice of motor would be a two-wheel drive Nissan Qashqai. We wanted a four-wheel drive model, as Mrs H had before, but at the time of order Nissan had decided that its customers could have a 4WD Qashqai or an automatic Qashqai, but not both in one car, and the automatic gearbox won.

I would say that we had made the wrong choice, but my own car is supposed to be one of the most capable off-road vehicles on the market, and I don’t think it would have fared any better in the circumstances.

I am currently on eBay looking for a competitively priced second hand tank.

I conclude with many thanks to Mrs H’s rescuers, narrator and photographer, and the assurance that I will, without fail, report here with equal fullness and frankness any car-related misfortunes that may occur when I am behind the wheel myself. How’s that for making myself a hostage to fortune?